QUISPAMSIS – It all happened so fast.
Lieutenant Jim LeBlanc, with the Kennebecasis Valley Fire Department, said the response was instinctual.
A call had come in just after midnight for a possible structure fire in Quispamsis.
As the first crew was on route, the dispatcher told them the caller was in the house. He had reported a chair on fire, and she told him to try to get out.
LeBlanc said because the fire service also responds to medical calls, it wasn’t the first time he’d been to the home. Since he had already visited about four times on medical calls, he knew the man’s name, that he was in a wheelchair, and where he usually was in the house.
“You can’t see the house from the road so you couldn’t see anything going on when we arrived there,” LeBlanc said.
He and firefighter Mark Richardson were the first crew on scene. It had taken slightly longer than usual because road construction forced them to take a detour.
“As we got closer to the house, we could see the windows were smoke-stained and we could actually see the fire through the living room window,” he said. They called the chief to notify him that there was a working fire, and Richardson ran back to the truck to stretch out the hose line while LeBlanc looked for the resident.
He went to the back of the house, where a wheelchair ramp is located, hoping to find the man safely outside.
“That wasn’t the case,” he said. They realized the man was still inside.
“I opened the back door, and I get a face full of smoke, and I’ve been coughing ever since,” he said. “It was a dark heavy smoke about three feet from the floor. I yelled in – knowing his name I yelled his name – and he actually answered me. So I knew he was still alive and we needed to get in right away to get him.”
LeBlanc and Richardson put on their masks and made their way inside. LeBlanc said the smoke was so thick, that there was zero visibility in the house.
“Our thermo imager – our camera that sees through smoke – it was working but was so smoky that I couldn’t see the screen in front of my mask,” he said. They headed straight for the living room, where they knew from previous calls the man often spent his time.
“I bumped into the chair, the wheelchair, and then I felt him in the chair,” LeBlanc said. “The chair that was actually on fire was about four feet from him. It was fully involved; the flames were up rolling across the ceiling at this point, so we grabbed him and spun the wheelchair around.”
LeBlanc said when he grabbed the man, he heard a response, although it happened so quickly that he doesn’t remember whether it was a groan, or words. But it was a sign that the man was still conscious, which was good news.
“We retraced our path in, and got him out on the deck in the fresh air,” he said. They confirmed that he had been the only one inside, and then took him down to the ambulance, which had just arrived at the scene and was backing into a driveway.
“It happened so fast that I don’t think they even knew they were getting a patient,” LeBlanc said. The two firefighters opened up the back, pulled out the stretcher and put the man on it.
During that time, other fire trucks had arrived on scene, and were already working to contain the flames.
The crews, which Assistant Deputy Chief Alick Taylor said involved about 20 firefighters, put out the fire fairly quickly, with a fairly small amount of water damage.
“The house itself, we contained the fire to one from to the living room,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of smoke damage.”
LeBlanc said they had to break some windows to let out the smoke, and some walls were charred but the house was salvageable.
However, he said the man did not have insurance.
As of Saturday, he remained in the hospital in the ICU, but was able to breathe on his own.
“They made a miraculous save to be able to go in and get that man,” Taylor said. “He was in dire straits. He was inhaling a lot of carbon monoxide.”
LeBlanc said it’s the first rescue both he and Richardson have been involved in, despite his 26 years as a firefighters and Richardson’s 15.
“You don’t even have to think about it. The training kicks in and the stuff that needs to be done happens,” LeBlanc said. “The training and teamwork come together.
“It doesn’t happen very often and I guess that’s a good thing. We don’t want to see people in those situations,” he said, adding that he will feel better about this rescue if the man pulls through and recovers well. “It’s a good feeling I guess. It’s just the job. Just doing what anybody else would have done.”